There’s no escaping it: a distressing amount of Republican voters continue to believe, despite all availabe evidence to the contrary, that President Obama was somehow born in Kenya, and is thus constitutionally ineligible to serve in the very office he has occupied for the last two years. Though I’m skeptical of sensationalistic stories like this one, which use the weaselly category of “likely voters” to exaggerate the strength of “birthers” in the GOP base, any significant bloc of Republican supporters so firmly in denial of evidence-based standards of reality should be deeply troubling to the leaders of that party.
But it doesn’t seem to be. On the contrary, some leading GOP presidential candidates actually seem to be going out of their way to court birther support, or at the very least issue denials-but-not-quite-denials of the conspiracy theory in such a way as to leave the door open to fair-minded birther “moderates,” if such a thing can be said to exist.
Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, went on a right-wing talk radio show this week and stated that the “only reason” he was not a birther himself was because he had faith that Hillary Clinton would have dug up some damning evidence during the primary. He then went on to qualify his statement by declaring that Obama grew up in Kenya (which he didn’t), was raised by his anti-colonialist Kenyan father and grandfather (which he wasn’t), and that this is where the President developed his radical anti-American worldview, or something. Though he’s later tried to backtrack from these statements, claiming a “slip of the tongue,” if you read the transcript in full, you can see that Huckabee was seriously, knowingly trying to peddle very detailed misinformation about the President’s supposed African background.
Newt Gingrich, who kinda-sorta launched his presidential campaign yesterday, has similarly gone on record stating that he believes Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview” is the root of his evil policies. Sarah Palin, for her part, has described the birth certificate question as a “fair” thing to ask, in clear language, though she later tried to do a dishonest, Huckabee-like backpedal, too.
There are a few issues at play here, as I see it.
One, as mentioned, is obviously just the awkward strategic politics involved in trying to be a Republican politician in this day and age, where a significant percentage of the base believes things about the President that are wildly untrue, yet remain highly motivated to run out and vote conservative because of them. In the era of the Tea Party, there are obviously very few points to be gained by any Republican candidate willing to stick up for Obama — no matter how absurd the charges. So, what results is a sort of amiable indifference to birtherism by the party establishment, a cowardly position most GOP candidates will probably be expected to embrace in order to win the votes of the party’s most hard-right wing.
But there’s another motivating factor, too, a phenomenon I’d describe as “stupid people trying to make smart arguments.”
Psychoanalyzing politicians is a useful way to understand their motives. It’s why political biographies are so fascinating to read, and why exploring a candidate’s personal background is a perfectly legitimate way to attempt to anticipate how he will govern. However, it’s also a very delicate and sophisticated art that requires a great deal of thoughtfulness, compassion, and understanding. You can’t form an accurate psychological profile of a politician just by cobbling together a few rumours, partisan talking-points, and conspiracy theories. People are complicated, and analyzing someone’s life story takes serious effort if you are seeking to draw a meaningful conclusion.
Dinesh D’Souza is a reasonable conservative intellectual who has written a variety of reasonable books on right-wing philosophy. He’s now earned a reputation as the sort of “thinking man’s birther” for his most recent work, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which seeks to deconstruct the President’s biography in a way that seriously questions how Obama’s worldview may have been shaped by his feelings towards his absentee African father, and his own, confused identity as a biracial American. I’ve personally read a very good book called America’s Half-Blood Prince that analyzed the President from a similar perspective, crafting a detailed portrait of Obama as an insecure and ambitious individual with complex feelings on race relations and white society, largely by unpacking the man’s own words in his famous autobiography.
It’s a fair case to make. Obama is a complicated fellow who has, in fact, spent a lot of time thinking about blackness, and Africa, and the Third World, and leftist politics, and capitalism, and white power structures, and all the rest of it. Likewise, in many ways, his multi-cultural, hyper-cosmopolitan, Hawaiian-Indonesian-Chicago background is, in fact, quite “strange,” or at least certainly very far removed from the experience of even the typical black American. It would be naive to think, as a result, that his personal ideology is no different from your average white Democratic politician who got his start on the city council of some middle class suburb.
Though it may be the stuff of excellent books, I’m not sure that this is an argument that has a place in the mainstream discourse, however. A lot of people simply don’t like reading books — excellent or otherwise — for starters, and as a result are only interested in regurgitating the half-understood, secondhand arguments of other, smarter people. When this happens, as I believe occurred with Governor Huckabee, what ensues is a lot of dopey people making sloppy, grossly simplified arguments that belittle the sophistication of the point the original thinker was trying to argue. Then the 24-hour news media, ever-eager to condense things even further, reduces the ignorant comment to an even more ignorant sound-byte, and by that point we’ve completely descended into childish name-calling, with no intellectual depth whatsoever.
There are many stages of stupidity needed to transform the arguments of a D’Souza into the sort of nonsense many Republican politicians (and man-in-the-street supporters) are spouting these days, but that seems to be the only level of discourse the American political culture appears lazy enough to handle.